Do the Homeless know their ABCs?

Among other responses to my last blog post, Drive-by Charity, I received this comment from Matthew:

You seem to have had a lot of personal contact with those in need over the years. As such … you are probably in the best position to answer the following 2 questions:
1. When should one give and not give money?
2. Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?

Now, I am far from being in the best position to answer any questions, much less these questions. However, I may be the best positioned person Matthew has come across lately, so I am going to give these questions my best efforts – which includes consulting with friends who I feel have more experience with homelessness and poverty, as well as the sometimes related issues such as PTSD and addiction – and friends with whom I can search the scriptures, because for me that’s an important part of answering any question.

The first question appears to be the simplest, but I feel it is the more complicated, so I am going to begin answering that one in my next blog post, and continue blogging about it until I am compelled to move on to other issues. Today, I begin with Matthew’s second question: “Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?”

I appreciate that Matthew made a later clarification: “What I meant by ‘share Jesus’ is in the usual evangelical way … you know … the ABC´s (since by simply showing love to the person is also sharing Jesus of course).” Yes! When we extend ourselves in Christ-like love for another, we are sharing Jesus in an embodied way. In this way, we hope that all Christians are always sharing Jesus wherever we go, insofar as we are rooted in the God who is love – unconditional and never-ending love for all creation, including people.

The “ABC’s” for those not in the know are as follows:

  • Accept that you are a sinner;
  • Believe that Jesus died for your sins;
  • Confess Jesus as your Savior.

Christianity is, by nature, a religion that seeks to convert others to belief in the Good News. No matter what nation or denomination, we all adhere to what has been called “The Great Commision” – the instructions of the Risen Jesus recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, including these words:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

However, we do not all agree on exact methods. So for those who are interested in exploring the pros and cons of the ABC formulation, I recommend this article from The Evangelical Movement of Wales.

Having a more general readership, I am going to answer Matthew more generally: all Christians have some version of Jesus talk. When do we bring up Jesus in conversation with someone we are meeting for the first time? And how?

The first thing to remember is that people who are homeless are not different from any other person in essentials. Statistically, one might suppose that a homeless person we encounter in a public place (rather than in a shelter or in some other setting) is more likely to be intoxicated, or more likely to have been longer without a shower – although there are many many exceptions to this, and as Christians, we ought never treat any person like a statistic. The hairs on each of our heads are numbered – God sees each of us in our particularity, and so we ought to strive to see the people we encounter in their particularity, too.

Secondly, we begin with a belief that all people need Jesus. People who are homeless do not need Jesus more; people who think they already have Jesus do not need Jesus any less.

That said, there is a power differential between the person with a home, a shower, a bank account, and a car, and the person without any of those things. Which means that we need to be especially careful. It will be difficult not to be perceived as patronizing when we begin our conversation. It will be difficult not to BE partronizing, frankly.

So with all of this in mind, we listen first. We ask questions that elicit the story that the person we have encountered wants to tell. We listen and discover points of connection with ourselves and points of difference. And, because as Christians we have been formed in worship and scripture and social justice and song, at some point we will find ourselves saying naturally, “that is like what Jesus said about…” or “that reminds me of a hymn I sang as a child…” or “I wonder, if Jesus were here, if he would say…” Enough. In one or two sentences we have put out there: “I, who have been standing here listening to you for the past several minutes, I am a Jesus person in this particular way.”

What will this person we have just met say? What will be their response? Because there is almost always some response, and the response often is an opening up about their current religious views, or their religious history, or curiosity about our own ideas about religion.

After all of this, we are in a better position to discern whether this person already believes as we do (Perhaps for Matthew, for instance, have they already traversed the ABC?), or – if they do not share our faith, are they anywhere close to interested / ready to hear our Jesus pitch? If they seem downright hostile to Christianity, for instance, plowing forward stubbornly as if we have not noticed what they have been saying may just prove to that person what they have already believed – that Christians don’t actually care about people, and are a generally unfriendly and pushy sort. Instead, stick around and listen to their stories for awhile longer and leave them with some lingering doubts about their preconceived notions about Jesus people.

There will be rare and wonderful ocassions when we get to share in words the love of Jesus for someone who was not ready to believe it until just then (or who once believed it but has forgotten.) When that happens, we had better be prepared to pray with them on the sidewalk, even if that is the sort of thing that usually makes us uncomfortable. We had better be prepared to give them our favorite Bible – the one that we carry with us at all times, the one with highlighting and notes in the margins. We had better mean it when we say that we are going to pray for them when we get home.

In fact, we had better pray for them whether or not we said we would.  And to that end, we did remember to ask them what their name was, right?  And told them our own name?

When I met the man at the strip mall the other day, I had been in a hurry to complete several errands before making it home to meet my daughter at her bus stop. I had been intending to drive across town to a local shop that was having a shoe sale, because in spite of owning eight or so pairs of shoes (so many pairs I don’t know the exact number!), I had “nothing to wear” with navy blue. Instead of making it to the shoe store, I spent 45 minutes talking with a man who likely owns only one pair of shoes. As I drove directly home from the mall, I had the opportunity to pray for forgiveness for my inability to discern wants from needs – an inability that stems from no longer having not quite enough resources to meet my needs. I prayed for all people, that we might become better at sharing our resources with one another. And I prayed for the man that I had just met, that he might be safe that night, that he might not be overcome by the cold, that he would one day find a way to kick his addiction to alcohol without being killed by the withdrawal (which can happen all too easily), and that he would come to own that he was a beloved child of God – that he would cease to think of himself as someone who hadn’t “done anything too bad, I guess,” and instead begin to think of himself as someone in whom God delights.

Both of us were called to conversion by our encounter, and I continue to pray that both of us will heed that call.

Cooking for Friends

I love cooking for people! Last night, I made a big pot of chicken and rice soup – enough to feed both my family and one other, and still put some up in the freezer.  I had been meaning to make soup for weeks, but committing to this friend of my daughter’s and her family (They just had a baby! Mazel Tov, Sadie!  Mazel Tov, Rex and Cynthia!) gave me the extra push I needed to get to chopping and simmering and stirring.

There is something hypnotic about making soup.  It is slow work.  The ingredients have their order, the stirring has its rythmn, there is a slow bass beat of bubbles popping, together with the treble rattle of the pot lid.  And the smells… Spending time over my soup draws me back in time – and all too often my memory takes me places where I would just as soon not go.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently posted on Facebook regarding funerals, and that took my mind back to my last visit with a parishioner who died about a year after I left the parish.  She had been fighting breast cancer for years, and that day – less than a week before the moving company came to whisk me off to North Carolina – that day was precious to both of us.  I believe that we both were fairly certain that we would not see one another again this side of the Second Coming.  And so I took the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me:  what a tremendous witness her faith was to me, and what a beacon of love she was to others.  And she replied, “You really think so, Sarah?  I have always had my doubts about my witness, since I never cook for anyone.  [My mother-in-law] is always making casseroles for people who are sick, and [this friend] and [another friend], but I never do, and I just worry that I am not behaving like a Christian.”

This really struck a nerve with me.  I had not long before received an e-mail from someone who was angry at me, and who decided to illustrate how I “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk” with my failure to make a casserole for a family living 20 minutes away.  My first thought was to defensively point out that I was only a couple of days past having been on food assistance myself, having a 2 week old baby who screamed non-stop when not nursing something like 14 times a day, all the time preparing for my probationary elder’s interviews – a four hour ordeal that was immovably scheduled to take place when my daughter was less than a month old.  But an older and wiser pastor suggested that it was better for me not to respond.  As the pastor, it was not my job to make casseroles.  As the pastor on maternity leave, it was not my job to be available to the congregation for really anything.  Hence the word “leave.”  But it kept eating at me.  I called my Dad, and he said, “You have to let it go, Sweetie.”  But he couldn’t tell me how – he was an expert at having some parishioner or another angry at him, and inexpert at letting anything go.

And here was this dear woman, whose charitable heart knew no bounds, somehow receiving this same message that because she did not cook for others in need, she was not “walking the walk.”

I remember pulling out my Bible and reading about how we are all given different gifts.  “Can you imagine what would happen if every woman in this county showed up with a casserole when someone was in distress?  It would be more than the recipient could even freeze!  Why, we would just get sicker, trying to politely eat everything that was brought to us!”

“Maybe you’re right, Sarah,” she said with a laugh.  But she still sounded uncertain.  And maybe that is because I had yet to learn a better answer…

As I stirred the soup, I thought of what Rex had written in an e-mail in response to the hastily organized supper brigade: “I have to admit, I never experienced this kind of hospitality growing up and living in [urban center not in the South!]”

He didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are really good Christians!” – and rightly so – most of the other parents probably wouldn’t self identify as Christian.  Instead, he saw this response to their new baby as “Southern hospitality” – we were witnessing to our Southernness.

Here I am, for the second time in less than a month paraphrasing Matthew 5:43-48:

Do you cook food for your friends when they are sick or have a new baby or have a death in the family?  Every Southerner does that.  You are only proving that you are capable of conforming to cultural norms.  Do you wish to witness to your Christian faith?  Then consider:  how do you demonstrate your love for those who oppose you, who would seek to do you harm, who undermine cultural norms, or who have nothing in common with you?

And so I think that I am one step closer to learning how to “let it go,” as my father prayed that I might do.  I love cooking for my friends.  I do it because I like to do it – and because, when my daughter is out of the house or feeling cooperative, it is something that I now am able to do.  But I do not deceive myself that cooking for others is something that I do because I am a Christian – it is not something that is rooted in my life of prayer and worship, or in my study of the scriptures.  I am a Southern woman who likes cooking, and so I cook for my friends when they need someone to cook for them, and when I have the time and energy to do so.  When I am doing something because I am a Christian, it usually looks very different – often it looks weird and sometimes even dangerous – usually it involves transgressing cultural norms.  Not to knock cooking for our friends – it is very rewarding for everyone involved!  But doing it or not doing it doesn’t witness to much – except to whether we are living into the expectations encoded in the notion of Southern womanhood.